The lost word

Posted on December 14, 2016


Thoughts on lyrics. The words in them. How they’ve changed. And how we’ve changed.

As part of the Poetry with Prakriti festival, I was recently in conversation with Akshay Manwani, the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet – and the evening ended up being about more than just the subject of the book. Among the topics that came up was the difference between poets and lyricists, the former being someone who retains his voice, his identity in the song versus the latter who essentially serves the song. It’s a thin line, an interesting one. Take Taxi Driver. The Dev Anand character – named Mangal, and called Hero by his friends – drives a cab by day and spends his evenings in a seedy bar. In a despondent fit, he breaks into the famous song Jaaye to jaayen kahaan. The thought in one of the lines goes like this: the heart is a collection of frustrations and disappointments. But look how this thought is shaped by Sahir: Maayoosiyon ka majma hai jee mein. Would a cabbie be conversant with such chaste Urdu?

My position is that it doesn’t matter. A song isn’t a place one goes looking for “realism.” Even to the extent that our films can be termed “realistic,” the song sequence is a stretch where the film slips into an Expressionistic zone. People are speaking. Suddenly, they’re caught singing. Sometimes, dancing too. If we can buy into the fact that a character who speaks in Dev Anand’s voice is now singing in Talat Mahmood’s voice, if we can accept that the cadences of speech have now segued into the cadences of rhyming verse, then surely it shouldn’t take that much of suspension of disbelief that a Bombay cabbie now sounds like Sahir Ludhianvi.

At least for me, a song is something that has to work both within the context of the film and without. And when I’m listening to Jaaye to jaayen kahaan on the radio, the song no longer belongs to Dev Anand. It belongs to me, to us. It’s now a slice of our life set to beautiful words, a beautiful tune, and sung by a beautiful voice. This “perfection,” this idealised remove from our prosaic lives, is part of why we love songs so much, why they transcend a very specific context in a very specific film and become a universal representation of a thought, an emotion, sometimes even a philosophy.

Note that I brought up the radio. Another subject of discussion was whether those of us who grew up in an era where listening to songs was an exclusive time-filling activity, like reading a book, tend to care about (and remember) lyrics more than those in their teens and twenties today, to whom a song is something that plays in the background while they do something else. Or is it just that even back then, there was always only a handful that cared about the words in a song, while most just cared about the music?

A good place to debate this point would be the “philosophical song,” whose appeal lies as much in its meaning as its music. It’s easy to see why this song situation has almost disappeared from the screen. With the increasing emphasis on quick cuts and choreography and razzle-dazzle, it’s hard to let a song simply linger on close-ups – as in Main shayar badnaam, from Namak Haram. When you listen to it, you can’t help “hearing” the words. Because the music does not overpower the lyrics. And because there is no other distraction. No one’s dancing. The camera is unobtrusive – it just keeps shifting from face to anguished face inside a squalid room. In other words, there are no dazzling location changes. By the time the philosophical song takes the shape of Tanhaee in Dil Chahta Hai, we see Aamir Khan in the midst of a sped-up world, and because the eye is constantly being bombarded with visual information, the ear is content playing second fiddle.

But this isn’t to say good lyrics (or even good poetry) isn’t being written today. This line from Arziyaan (Delhi 6): “marammat muqaddar ki kar do Maula,” an alliterative plea to God to “repair” one’s destiny, as though He were a carpenter eying a wobbly side-table. This line from Channa mereya (Ae Dil Hai Muskhil): “Dil ke sandookon mein mere achche kaam rakhna,” a farewell note that requests a friend to store one’s good deeds in the boxes of the heart, as though the organ is a chest of drawers one fills with mothballed memories. Or even this rhyme from Manwa laage in Happy New Year, where “saanware” is matched with “dil ke gaon re.”

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So here are the questions. Fifty years on, will people be talking about these lyrics? If not, then is that a function of changing lifestyles and interests and attention spans, or does the film itself play a part? Do we reflexively tend to enshrine the lyrics of, say, a Guru Dutt film, simply because the film itself is enshrined as a classic? If someone not named Gulzar wrote a great set of lyrics today, would we seek the song out? Put differently, do we only look out for lyrics when the writer comes with the literary world’s equivalent of an ISI stamp? And when Gulzarian words crop up today, do we still try to find out what they mean, the way we did when we encountered “aab-o-daana” in Do deewane shehar mein, from Gharonda?

At least this last question found an answer. A young poet who was part of the audience spoke of the song Kamli from Dhoom 3, and how he got stuck at the phrase “nami daanam.” He Googled it up, found out it means “I don’t know” in Persian, and a few days later, he found he’d forgotten the meaning. That could be a subject for another day: When we are bombarded with so much new information every day, is the problem one of remembering lyrics or simply remembering anything at all?

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi